I always order all the kitchen-garden seeds during January. My method is this - the gardener marks Sutton's list, and then brings it to me to alter or add to it any out-of-the-way vegetable. It is most important to go through the catalogues and order seeds early in this month. This enables you to get first choice, and you are then prepared for any kind of weather, and can sow early if desirable. Also it is easy to make up omissions later on while still not too late. For all the flower-seeds that are the result of careful cultivation - such as Sweet-peas, Mignonette, Asters, Salpiglossis, and so on - the great nurserymen cannot, of course, be surpassed in excellence. But for small people who grow a variety of flowers they are very expensive, as they only sell large packets of seeds, have few things out of the common, and hardly any interesting perennials at all. I said before and continue to say that, for all uncommon seeds, there is one man without any rival so far as I know, and that is Mr. Thompson of Ipswich. His catalogue alone is most descriptive and instructive. It is the only catalogue I know arranged simply and alphabetically, with a column telling whether the plants are hardy or half-hardy, tender or perennial, greenhouse, stove, etc. It also is the only catalogue which gives the approximate height that the plant ought to reach when grown to perfection. But of course this varies immensely, as he says himself, with the character of the soil and situation in which they are cultivated, especially if grown in pots. With this list and a careful reference from the things named to the more detailed accounts in the 'English Flower Garden' or in Johnson's 'Gardener's Dictionary,' the requirements of all the plants that are grown in English gardens can be arrived at. The books will tell you better than the catalogue which are the things best worth growing from seed. But a certain amount of experience and natural intelligence can never be left out of this kind of study. Mr. Thompson is also exceedingly obliging about procuring the seeds of certain wild plants which may not be in his catalogue, but Which are very desirable to grow in rather large gardens where there is room, such as Tussilago fragrans and Iris fædissima. What amateurs find most difficult in arranging herbaceous borders - even more difficult than colour itself - is to acquire sufficient knowledge of plants to judge of their strength and robustness, and above all of their relative height. Putting Mr. Robinson aside, the only book I know that is full of instruction, particularly in this respect, is the one I named before with great appreciation, 'The Botanic Garden,' by B. Maund. Gardeners and amateurs who are really interested in the subject are beginning to discover that to grow many plants successfully, especially in light sandy or gravelly soils, you must grow them from seed in the same air and soil in which they are expected ultimately to succeed. For this you must have three or four small pieces of ground given up to the purpose - some dry, some wet, some sunny, some shady, and which will require nothing but weeding and thinning. Seed-sowing, like all other planting, requires a great deal of thought and consideration. Some grow up in a few days and, every seed having germinated, require much thinning, however much you may imagine you have sown thinly enough. Some seedlings will transplant perfectly, and not suffer at all in the move; others must be sown in place at all risks. One seed-bed is required that can be left entirely alone for (say) two years, except for just breaking with a hand-fork and weeding, as some seeds germinate very slowly. Where this is known to be the case, with large foreign seeds it is well before sowing to soak them for twenty-four hours in warm water and a little oil - or even to puncture the hard skin, as with Cannas. For instance I shall certainly soak the seeds of the little Zucche, a kind of Vegetable Marrow that I brought from Florence last year, as it is a plant that in England has to do much growth in a short time, and it is desirable to get it well grown on in good time to plant out at the end of May. The exact time of putting out must depend on the season, and must be decidedly after that late May frost which comes every year without fail, and which in some years does gardens so much harm, though we all know how this may be guarded against by a little protection.
I think the multiplicity of nurserymen, small and great, and the gardeners' sympathy with the trade, have had much to do with the fact that the sowing of seeds, except in the case of annuals, has gone so out of fashion. No matter where I go, it is not one garden in a hundred that has these permanent small nurseries for seeds or even for cuttings, or a reserve garden as described before. And yet I am sure many of the best perennials cannot be grown at all in a light sandy soil unless they are grown from seed on the spot, and a great many more are only to be seen in real perfection if they are treated as annuals or biennials. The growing of seeds is a work which an amateur gardener can see to himself - or, indeed, herself - and I am sure gardening is the healthiest occupation in the world, as it keeps one much out of doors. Instead of lolling indoors in comfortable chairs, one moves about, and with the mind fully occupied all the time.
They sell at the Army and Navy Stores an admirable little lamp-stove (Rippingille's patent) for heating small greenhouses. This will keep the frost out of a small house, and is far easier to manage, for an amateur with a gardener who goes home at night, than the usual more expensive arrangement.
There are also small forcing-boxes to put inside a greenhouse or in a room for bringing on seeds in early spring.
Greenhouse Cyclamens are always useful, and should be sown early in the year (February or March) in heat. They should be grown on steadily under glass all the summer, and kept well watered, then they will flower all through the next winter. Mr. Thompson sells Cyclamen seed of the sweet old-fashioned kind, which is rather difficult to get from other nurserymen, who all go in for the giant sizes, and are now spoiling this lovely flower by doubling it. It is best to grow them every year from seed; but if the old plants are sunk out of doors and kept moist through the summer they flower very well. I have a large old plant this winter in a hanging basket, and its appearance is very satisfactory. Some gardeners dry the bulbs on a greenhouse shelf; that also answers.
I would advise everyone to try and get the old Prince of Orange Pelargonium. There is nothing like it, but it is not easy to get, as gardeners do not understand that it requires to be treated like an ordinary flowering Pelargonium, rather than like the hardier sweet-leaved kind. It wants well cutting back at the end of the summer, and then growing on in rather more heat than the ordinary sweet-leaved Pelargoniums. This little care and constantly striking young plants in the summer will prevent its dying out. Out of the fifteen to twenty kinds of sweet-leaved Geraniums which I possess, I consider it the most valuable and the best worth having.
Cuttings of the best French Laurestinus, struck in May and grown on to a small standard, make excellent filling-up plants for a greenhouse now, and if judiciously pruned back after flowering, and stood out in half-shade all the summer, they are covered with large white flowers at this time of year. When they get too large for pots or tubs they can be planted out in shrubberies; if a little protected by other shrubs, they flower as freely as the common one, and the flower, even out of doors, is larger and whiter.
After marking Sutton's list I mark Thompson's, as some of the flower-seeds are best sown early in January. The difficulty about sowing seeds early is that they want care and protection for a long time after sowing and before they can be put out. We are able to sow the hardier annuals here by the middle of March, especially Poppies, Cornflowers, Love-in-the-Mist, Gypsophila, etc. I am sure that, in this light soil, the second sowing in April never does so well for early-flowering annuals. Autumn things, on the contrary, are best not sown till May, or they come on too early. I never sow Salpiglossis or Nemesia out of doors and in place till the beginning of May. In favourable weather Sweet-peas may be sown, like Green Peas, in a trench out of doors very early in the year.
One of my kind correspondents said she observed I was not so rich in blue flowers as was desirable, and named the following. I mean to get all those I do not already possess. Commelina cælestis, Anchusa italica, A. capensis, A. sempervirens, Parochetus communis, Phacelia campanularia. Commelina cælestis does very well in a dry back-garden of a London house. Browallia elata is a most useful annual, and there is a good picture of it in Curtis's 'Botanical Magazine.' Catananche cærulea is an old border perennial, and I have it. Linaria reticulata is a pretty, small annual; so is L. aureo-purpurea and L. bipartita. Omphalodes luciliæ I have tried to get, but failed, and mean to grow it from seed.